This story starts far beyond the Northern Isles with the building of RMS Oceanic. The greatest liner of her time, and the largest ship in the world until 1901, she was built for the White Star line in Harland and Wolff, Belfast. Once completed the Oceanic was launched in 1899.
She was seconded to the Royal Navy and converted to an armed merchant cruiser at the beginning of World War One and met her end when patrolling the seas between the north of Scotland and Faroe. On the 8 September 1914 she ran ashore, as a result of a navigation error, on the Shaalds of Foula, Shetland. There is now no-one living who can actually remembers the grounding of the then HMS Oceanic but some in Shetland remember the stories surrounding this event, and there are many remnants yet of this great ship dispersed around Shetland.
How does the grounding of a White Star Liner lead us on to a maritime heritage of Shetland? Let me introduce the Norna, or, as she is now, the beautifully restored No. 6 lifeboat a remarkable remnant from HMS Oceanic. The Norna is remembered with great affection by many Shetlanders. She has had many lives and escapes in her lifetime.
The first ‘great escape’
Norna’s first escape being that she survived the grounding of HMS Oceanic. Two Shetland men, merchant mariners, were onboard that day, Willie Mann of Yell and Magnie Edwardson of Unst, Shetland’s North Isles. They were also on the last lifeboat to leave the ship following her grounding: Lifeboat No 6. Having fulfilled her primary role, the lifeboat was eventually towed away from the isle of Foula to Lerwick, on Shetland’s Mainland, where she languished for the remainder of the Great War.
A new lease of life
In 1920 the lifeboat was bought to be used as a relief ferry on the route between Lerwick and the nearby island of Bressay. It was then that she was named the Norna. Norna had various owners and continued service in Bressay until 1970. She was used to move people, livestock and many items of cargo during this time. Passengers were often delivered wet as she was an open boat with no shelter.
Norna was sometimes chartered for fishing trips by Shetlanders and visitors alike. During one charter she managed to soak a few visiting fishermen from England. It was really their fault for refusing to obey crew orders. There was no toilet onboard so women fishers were usually put off the day long adventure.
Some Shetland folk, still living, will remember that she ran ashore on 5 January 1922 whilst fetching guizers – people participating in the Shetland tradition of dressing-up in disguise, and attending festivals and parties – from Lerwick for the Old Christmas Dance in the Bressay Hall. Her bottom was fairly extensively damaged but she was refloated and repaired by Hay & Co Lerwick.
A third useful life
By 1970 the Norna was only being used for moving livestock on journeys between between Bressay and Lerwick. Not long after this she was sold to new owners, the Andersons, in Yell. The Anderson family have many memories of moving sheep within her bows, between Ulsta, on Yell and many of the islands in Yell Sound. The most dramatic ‘trip’ occurred when she broke her moorings and was heading for the bulwark! Someone came into the shop, in Ulsta, and said that the Norna was drifting towards shore. A group of local people lowered Will John Anderson on a rope over the bulwark and, when she got close enough, he scrambled onboard the Norna to attempt to start her engine. Luckily his efforts worked, and he managed get back to the pier. It was a memorable day for him, for more than one reason. The watery scramble was quite a way to start what was also, in fact, his wedding day!
The Norna was used regularly on Yell sound between 1975 and 1993.
In 1993 Norna was taken out of the water and hauled ashore in Ulsta. Here, she was battered by many gales and high tides which all led to notable planking damage. Lying here it seemed that this was how her days would end. Many travellers through Yell will remember seeing her lying dejected on the beach.
An old life repurposed
In 2001 Norna was donated to the Shetland Museum who undertook and completed a wonderful job restoring her to her original White Star Line lifeboat specifications. In Shetland, there has been much debate as to whether this was the correct restoration. Memories of the Norna are different for many people, whether she is recalled as a ferry or as a sheep flit boat. There are cases that can be argued for all who feel that their ‘Norna memory’ should be honoured. Through time these personal memories will fade. It seems apt that the Norna is restored to her beginnings.
Maritime heritage, an international heritage
This story is typical of Shetland heritage but it is also an international one. Who would have thought that one boat could begin life in Belfast, cross the Atlantic Ocean, move between the Shetland Islands of Foula, Bressay and Yell, before ending up in Lerwick; on Shetland’s Mainland?
Boats have always been a lifeline for our islands and will continue to be whether they be flit boats, fishing boats, ro-ro (roll-on-roll-off) ferries or simply boats used for pleasure. Boats are used for one purpose; then reused, repurposed, and altered to suit another. Time and time again they are bought and sold all through the islands. Some even continue their usefulness beyond their seaworthiness by being recycled into a boathouse roof or through their parts being recycled into new items; a bangle for example.
A source of many stories
As for the Norna she now evokes all these past memories. Stories will be retold over her gunwales and many more will be created as young Shetlanders and visitors to our islands, hear about her and admire her graceful lines.
Please cite New Connections Across the Northern Isles (2019) when referencing materials from this virtual museum.
Find out more
Visit the Old Haa Museum website by clicking here.
Visit the Cunningsburgh History Group website by clicking here.
Visit the Shetland Museum and Archives website by clicking here.
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